Friday, 25 May 2012


Scribble City Central's lucky (but slightly delayed due to technical problems)  thirteenth in the Fantabulous Fridays A-Z series is from Meg Rosoff, one of my all-time favourite authors, and winner of the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction and the Carnegie Medal.  She's a writer who always surprises me, as a reader, with something new - and her latest book, There is No Dog, is no exception.

The idea of God as a hormonal teenage boy explains our random planetary weather and unexpected joys and disasters perfectly.  However, it wasn't Bob/God who enchanted me most in this thought-provoking, funny novel.  It was his Eck.  I fell for the Eck hard.  I wanted one in my life more than chocolate (a big want).  He took up residence in the landscape of my mind as if he had always lived there, and (quite strangely) things then started disappearing out of my fridge - more than could be explained by having two teenagers in my house.  The Eck, you see, is very greedy.  Meg maintains that the Eck is now extinct - but I have uncorroborated evidence to the contrary (see rare fridge raid photo footage captured at great personal risk 'in the wild' by our own correspondent). Anyway, enough from me - I will now turn you over to the world's greatest living eckspert to tell you about:
E is for Eck
Fridge Raider of the Lost Ark

I give you...drumroll...MEG ROSOFF.

MR: It is an unfortunate fact that 90% of all animal and plant species on the planet are now extinct, and tragically, the Eck is among them.

In contrast to the Dodo, nicknamed “Loathsome Bird” by the Dutch Van Neck expedition in 1598 due to its greasy, disgusting-tasting flesh, the Eck is thought to have become extinct due to having the most sublime tasting flesh in nine thousand galaxies. 

The deliciousness of Ecks has been corroborated by passages in the poetry of Gong Zizhen, dating from the early Qin Dynasty in China (21 BC), recounting “banquets of Ecke which did cause growne men to swoon uponeth the grounde with a moste embarrassing excess of moaning.
Eck captured in mid fridge raid (2011)

Early Celtic stone inscriptions from the 5th century AD record a creature “the height of a man’s hip with a nose long and flexible in shape and movement and a nature most adorable and charming to whomsoever he shall befriend.”  While of course every schoolchild knows that the Eck appears with great frequency in the Bible, where it is described “always upon the right hand of God.”  This description has been variously interpreted to suggest the creature as advisor, guide, acolyte, servant, or even as a kind of early Christian valet or pimp to the holiest of holy masters.
Nesting Eck (circa 1971)

More recently, radical scholars of divinity have reinterpreted the historical role of the Eck as closer to that of God’s domestic pet – more, perhaps, like a Labrador Retriever in its capacity to offer comfort and companionship, serving as “God’s best friend.”

By means of early hieroglyphic representations and fossil remains, not to mention contemporary paintings, passport pictures and photo-booth images, scientists can recreate the Eck with great accuracy as a penguin-like creature, approximately 36” tall, with short legs, a scurrying gait, and no tail.  Ecks are mammals, give birth to two or three fluffy grey live young at a time.  Both parents are known to care for the young (known as Ecksters) for the first two years of life, after which they are sent off to forage for sandwiches on the high street. 

Immature Ecks retain their fluffy juvenile coat throughout the entire period of adolescence, developing the dense, wiry grey fur of a mature Eck at the age of three.  Ecks were not traditionally hunted for their fur except during the great ice ages, when humans were constantly chilly and, having dined on a delicious meal of Eck, would put the fur to good use in the linings of slippers and bobble hats.

The last Eck was spotted as recently as 2011, but the miracle of DNA cloning allows science and humanity to hope that a reintroduction of the species may someday be accomplished.

SCC: Thank you so much for that fascinating insight into Eck history and biology, Meg. I have great hopes that the Eck may yet come out fighting from his (I hope temporary) extinction - there do seem to be more and more sightings worldwide, so I'm keeping my fingers firmly crossed.

Next week: Herbie Brennan, New York Times Bestselling Author and all-round good guy, is here to shine a spotlight on F for Faery (or Fairy, if you wish).  See you then!

Friday, 18 May 2012


Scribble City Central's twelfth in the Fantabulous Friday A-Z series is from a truly wonderful illustrator, Jackie Morris.  Jackie has one of the best and most beautiful imaginations I know - and she is one of the few people who is as good with words as she is at pictures. I've known and loved her work for years, but I think my favourite of all her books is Tell Me a Dragon.

It's a gem of a book, a book to make the imagination of a child soar - and not only that of a child.  What I hadn't realised till recently is that Jackie has also done the exquisite covers for one of my very favourite fantasy series - Robin Hobb's Rain Wild Chronicles, the latest of which has just appeared.  You can see just how beautiful they are here.

All in all, Jackie seemed to be the perfect person to hand you over to to talk about
D for Dragons
Invisible Realities of the Air

Why, she even has a dragonmobile to ride around in, not to mention that she lives in Wales, where dragons are at the heart of everything!

 JM:  I am often asked, usually by children ( adults think they know the answer) whether dragons exist.

“Look around the world,” I say, “ around the world then back through time. Ever since people walked upright and drew images there have been dragons. Primitive man drew dragons on cave walls, carved dragons in rock, decorated pottery with dragon images. All around the wide wonderful world in every human culture there is some form of dragon species, scattered through myth there are stories of dragons, in Japan and China, Africa and Australia, Europe and America. Japan has dragons that control the weather, hide pearls beneath the oceans, in South America there are dragon spirits, in England there are dragons that shake the foundations of castles so that stones tumble and fall. Dragons live in wells, beneath the sea, make snow fall on mountains.

We take for granted the speed of communication now. A dragon could flap its wings in South America and a tidal wave of tweeting information could spread around the world until it was the most watched piece of film on YouTube. But when dragons began their lives with mankind information moved at a slow pace. Stories spread along trade routes, the Salt Road, The Silk Road, along the sea lanes. Before writing these tales of dragons would spread slow wings around the world with traveling story tellers, and yet they did. People in one town were plagued by a dragon demon and a knight had come to rescue them and the tale would travel and grow.

How fascinating then, that in these cultures that grew up for centuries independent of each other--until one discovered another, as exploration by sea became more commonplace--how fascinating that all had dragons of one kind or another.”

So, all around the world, in all cultures, this creature is present. In the history of the planet mankind is a relatively recent arrival. In the history of mankind books are even more recent. People take literacy for granted and yet the phenomena of the spread of knowledge through the written word is so recent a historical form as to be the blink of an eye in time. This makes it even more astonishing to me that the dragon creature is so very strong in the human imagination.

Most dragons are born from eggs. Little is known of where dragons lay their eggs, whether they make good parents or whether a young dragon, once hatched, grows into the world on its own. Most times they only come to human attention as fully grown, fully formed creatures.

Most dragons can fly. Some do this by using their wings, others have magical powers to lift them into the air, and the Luck Dragon Falcor, who lives in The Never Ending Story of Michael Ende flies on the power of happy thoughts. Some bring storms in their wake, some stir the sea bed to powerful storms.

It is said that dragons, like many humans, are attracted to gold. In Beowulf, one of the most ancient of our northern stories, the hero slays a dragon and claims the dragon’s hoard as his.

For me dragons are magical. As a child I would dream of riding across star-filled skies on a dragon’s back. I would have no worries and no cares as my dragon would deal with all my troubles. There was a painting that I loved and loathed, painted by Uccello in 1470 it showed a princess, a dragon and a knight. It was supposed to show St George and the dragon but I read the painting in a different way. To me it looked as if a princess was out walking with her dragon one day, enjoying the blue sky, the air and the views when along came a knight so full of himself. Seeing her there he decided to ‘rescue’ her, so ran the dragon through with his lance. In Tell Me A Dragon there is a painting inspired by this. The words read
My dragon eats sweet perfumed flowers. When she laughs petals ride on her breath.” 
The picture shows the princess from the Uccello painting and her dragon, much older now, and larger. He is eating a bunch of flowers the knight has brought as a gift for the princess. Next he will eat the knight.

I have never seen a dragon. I have heard one. Lying on my back on a high hill top, on a bed of heather, with the blue sky above me, I was thinking about the words for a book called Little Dragon Small and the Search for Story. I heard a fierce rush of wings and felt a rush of wind wash over me. I sat up, blinded by sunlight and a moment later looked around to see, but the dragon had passed on swift wings.

As I get older I realize more and more that although I know many things there are so very many things that I do not know, do not understand. The sheer depth of my ignorance is astonishing to me, but also exciting. So much to learn. I have never seen a dragon. But then I have never seen a blue whale, a wild polar bear, a Siberean tiger, a wild snow leopard, a Scottish wildcat. I have never seen them but I know that they exist. Knowing they exist makes the world a richer place for me. Perhaps that is how it is with dragons also.

Some time ago I was asked to do a piece of work for a DiscWorld calendar. During the research ( reading The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett) I discovered a whole new world, a world where magic was real and dragons could be summoned by the power of thought. This was a spark that lit the kindling of my imagination and led to the book Tell Me a Dragon. ( The kindling was the desire to have a book that I could use to stimulate the imagination of children to make working in schools much easier. Children, well, most children, love dragons, and the idea that they could have their own, describe it, draw and paint it was a powerful catalyst for working with them.) Very late on in the project I painted the small dragon who lives on the title page. From the moment he was born he stomped around in my imagination demanding his own book. He didn’t want to be a bit part player in a book about dragons, no! He wanted a book all to himself. And so Little Dragon Small and the Search for Story was born.

It begins:

On a blue sky day Little Dragon Small hatched out into the bright and wonderful world. With a stretch and a yawn and the blink of an eye he set off on an adventure to search for Story.

He didn’t know much. He was new. He was young. But he knew very well that every dragon needs a story.

We all need stories. They are what make us what we are. Maybe we all need dragons too.

SCC:  I have never been lucky enough to hear (or see) a dragon, Jackie - but I don't need to.  I too know they exist, along with fairies, perhaps in a space that most of us no longer have eyes strong or fast enough to comprehend.  As usual, you've set my imagination on fire - and I can't wait to read more about Little Dragon Small.  Thank you so much for a fascinating and illuminating piece.

If you'd like to find out more about Jackie, you can do so at the following links:
Some of her signed books are available from:

Next week: Meg Rosoff talks about E for Eck, a new but irresistible creature (keep your fridges locked).  See you then!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Winners of the Marcus Sedgwick Draw

The winners of the Fantabulous Fridays A-Z draw for copies of Marcus Sedgwick's fantastic book, MIDWINTERBLOOD, are as follows:

Jane Stemp
Kathryn Evans
HM Castor
Ian Kenworthy
Carmel Waldron

Congratulations to all of you.  Please do email me via this link with your details, which I'll then pass on to Orion, who are kindly sending out the books.

Friday, 11 May 2012


Scribble City Central's eleventh Fantabulous Friday comes from the marvellous Marcus Sedgwick - and as an added bonus, there's a GIVEAWAY of 5 copies of his newest book Midwinterblood (details of how to enter at bottom of post).

I first met Marcus two years ago at a SCBWI conference.  Coincidentally, he was there to talk about the process of writing that very book.  What struck me immediately was that here was someone who could unravel the inner workings of his writer's mind in a way which would make sense to a non-writer (so often it doesn't).  I was also struck by his neat, meticulous notebooks, which put the chaotic, coffee-stained, ripped out scribbles in my own Moleskines (as well as on things as various as supermarket receipts and cheque book stubs) to shame.  It was then that I suffered my very first episode of 'notebook envy'.

Now that I've read Midwinterblood, I reckon it's one of the best things Marcus has ever written.  Structurally complex, its interwoven stories link the far future with the distant past, and it's a dark, thought-provoking examination of love and sacrifice. Although I'm not usually a big fan of books set in the present tense, this absolutely works. Marcus is what I call a brave writer.  He doesn't go for 'safe' or 'easy' - and I love that he's a player and an explorer with his writing.  His books range over a diverse number of subjects, but doppelgangers have never yet featured.  So why did I ask him to write about them here?  I'll hand you over to Marcus himself for a little EXCLUSIVE information on the subject!

D for Doppelganger
Walking Mirror Image

MS: D is for Doppelganger.

Or to give them their more accurate, German spelling, Doppelgänger, literally meaning, “double walker”

Although such figures can be found in various mythologies from around the world, from Ancient Egypt through Classical Greece to the fiction of the present day, the word Doppelgänger was invented by Jean Paul for his romantic novel of the late 18th century, Siebenkäs. However, whatever their provenance, almost universally the Doppelgänger is a symbol of evil or ill omen. In many cases to see one’s double meant a presage of death.

I can’t remember where I first heard of the phenomenon, but it always struck me as a creepy idea, and one I love for its subtlety. This is no brash creature of folklore or mythology, no fire-spouting beast, or blood-sucking fiend, and yet its quiet menace is therefore, to me, more potent. The Doppelgänger appears in many fictional works, but there are also apparently real cases, most notably the report that Shelley’s double appeared shortly before his death. In some cases, the double sends the victim mad, or undermines his reputation and morality. It’s insidious stuff, and I love it.

I have myself seen my double on three occasions. Once when I was in Edinburgh, in my twenties, once just a couple of summers ago, in Gothenburg. It’s an uneasy feeling. You see someone and stare at them for some reason, you can’t work out quite why, but something draws you to them. Which of us is so narcissistic that we know our own image instantly? And yet, then there is that moment when you work out who you’re looking at: yourself. To say it’s disturbing is to say the least.

I’ve never written about the phenomenon, but it’s going to feature in a novel I’m currently working on. What can I tell you about that? Nothing. Like many authors I’m too suspicious to talk about work as yet unfinished.

My personal favourite doubles are the ones unwillingly produced by The Great Danton, a Victorian stage magician, in Christopher Priest’s wonderful novel, The Prestige, and which provide the creepiest end to any book I’ve ever read.

So I have seen my double, and yet I am not yet dead. Despite the fact my sister once phoned me up to say she’s seen me in Trafalgar Square on the TV. Fine, I said, except I was hundreds of miles away at the time….

SCC: Thank you, Marcus, and I can't wait to see how you use Doppelgängers in the new book - that's a very tantalising hint, and hooray for a Scribble City Central exclusive!  I've never seen a live Doppelgänger of myself, but I found it entirely creepy to be shown a Victorian oil painting of a girl who was my own mirror image.  I've always wondered who she was.


Next week: Jackie Morris flies into the realms of fantasy with D for Dragon.  Join us then! 

Friday, 4 May 2012


SCC's tenth Fantabulous Friday comes from Jonathan Stroud, award-winning fantasy master extraordinaire.  I've admired Jonathan's work for ages - in particular his Bartimaeus books, which I've given to countless kids as birthday and Christmas presents.  All have enjoyed them and demanded more. These are definitely books on my keep and re-read pile, not least because they are both clever and funny.

The thing I love most about Bartimaeus is that although he talks the djinni talk (bigtime), and is full of sarcasm, swagger and bravado, he's really quite human in his flaws.  His relationships with Nathaniel and Kitty make me both laugh and wince with recognition, and the scope of Jonathan's imagination (and what he does with it in writing these books) is both marvellous and amazing in the right sense of the words.  I can therefore think of no one better than Jonathan to enlighten us all on the mystery which is:
D for Djinni
Mischief and Mayhem Specialist

JS: For me, it’s all in the spelling.

Genie or Djinni? When you think of a powerful magical creature issuing forth from some restrictive prison (a lamp, say), and billowing up smokily into a vast and potent form, do you go for a soft initial ‘g’ or that harder, slightly more cussed, ‘dj’? The answer to that question influences whether you end up with something sporting earrings, ringlets, curled slippers and overly oiled biceps, or something altogether stranger, harsher and more dangerous. Which is not to say you can’t still give it a few jokes.

Funnily enough, even though Bartimaeus the Djinni has been central to my writing for almost ten years now, historically I’d never been a big fan of genies. The one in the great Alexander Korda movie Thief of Baghdad was, admittedly, pretty impressive, but most traditional examples were too tasselly for my taste. They were pantomime figures with stock powers and responses, thoroughly engrained in popular culture. Rubbed Lamps? Check. Three Wishes? Check. Even Robin Williams’ virtuoso turn in Aladdin scored highly on the Cheese-o-meter. Good gags, yes, but not much gravitas, and thoroughly Western in its range of references. All in all, it wasn’t a tradition that much interested me.

And yet. There was an older, deeper tradition out there, of which I was dimly aware, from which all the modern clichés stemmed. It was that of the Thousand and One Nights, of course, the great storehouse of Arabic story, and the djinn (or jinn) which it contained were a good deal more formidable than their emasculated descendants. They were vast, smoking giants, often inimical to mankind, creatures of air and fire who formed a separate race somewhere between mortals and the gods. They could move mountains and cover vast distances in the blink of an eye. In short, you Did Not Mess with them. They’re pre-Islamic in origin, but they appear in the Koran too, among the massed servants of King Solomon. In Richard Burton’s English translation of Thousand and One Nights, these ‘jinn’ remain ferocious and terrible. You still see glimpses of their power in Kipling’s ‘The Butterfly Who Stamped’, the last tale in the Just So Stories. Korda’s movie holds true to their nature, too, and this gives his genie its potency.

Anyway. In 2001 I wrote the first scribbled notes for a new book. It would feature ‘a demon or sprite who, along with all his kind, is summoned by wizard’s magic to perform tasks [and] obey – essentially a slave’. He was going to be the narrator too, and it would be his perspective, rather than that of the magicians, that we were going to identify with. I conceived him originally as a ‘demon’, but I quickly realised that, in his regular bondage to human masters, in his interesting mix of power and vulnerability, he was most definitely a genie of some kind. Or rather, he wasn’t going to be a ‘genie’, because I disliked the connotations. But a jinni, or djinni, in the earlier form of the word? Yes, that he definitely could be.

Right from the beginning, when Bartimaeus turns up in the bedroom of the 12-year-old Nathaniel in (a roughly) contemporary London, I was wresting my djinni away from its Arabic origins. His name, for instance, is Biblical. He is still a being of ‘fire and air’, capable of changing size and shape at the drop of a hat, but his repertoire of Detonations, Infernos, Spasms and other attacks has more to do with the spells of modern fantasy than anything historical. He is summoned via a pentacle, as Renaissance magicians summoned demons and devils in European tradition. He name-checks Baghdad, but also a much older past, spanning continents and cultures. One of his bynames is Sakhr-al Jinni (the moniker of a naughty djinni who in legend stole King Solomon’s magic ring), but he’s also got a dozen others. He’s been Bartimaeus of Uruk, in the time of Gilgamesh; N’gorso the Mighty in medieval Africa; Rekhyt in Ancient Egypt, and so on. The one constant is he’s been an almighty pain in the neck to magicians across all human history. My approach throughout was to fuse actual folklore (and literary and historical traditions) with the made-up stuff: the result would be to create something sinewy and believable, and recognisably my own.

An example of this is my hierarchy of spirits. Doing a little research into the original Arabic djinn, I discovered there were (and are) believed to be five main orders: Marids (the most powerful), Afrits (or Efrit/Ifrits), the Shaitan, the Jinn and the Jann. I liked putting Bart into a firm hierarchy, but I adapted it to my own design. Marids I kept, and Afrits, but Shaitan had to go for fairly obvious etymological reasons; Jinn was okay, but Jann was too similar, so I binned that as well. My 5 levels became: Marids, Afrits, Djinn, Foliots (a word I thought I made up; annoyingly, it also turns out to be a technical term for a portion of a clock) and Imps. These last are very much in the European tradition of small, ugly, goblinish creatures, and have very little to do with anything Arabic at all. In terms of power, Bart is very much in the middle of the hierarchy (despite his boasts to the contrary); whenever he’s not bullying the rubbish foliots and imps, he’s having to grudgingly kow-tow to the swaggering afrits he comes across. This isn’t the only way in which Bart’s mythic world echoes the structures and restrictions of our mundane human one.

Almost from the first sentence, I realised Bartimaeus was an ideal protagonist for me: I loved his insolence, his energy, his self-awareness, his ability to undercut many of the pomposities of fantasy with a well-timed footnote. I suppose by the end he may have drifted fairly far from his classical Arabic antecedents, but in his essential characteristics – his mercurial shape-shifting, his ambivalent approach to humans, and (above all, perhaps) the constant restrictions placed upon his supernatural powers – he remains very much a paid-up, card-carrying member of that hard-working class of magical entities, the noble djinn.

SCC: I LOVE the fact that foliot is really a bit of clock - are there any words left for us authors to 'make up'?  What a great insight, not only into the origins of Djinni themselves, but also into the origins of Bartimaeus himself.  Thank you so much for visiting, Jonathan.

Next week: D for Doppelganger with the marvellous Marcus Sedgwick (or will it be his evil look-alike?!) - there'll be one of his books to win, so be sure and visit again on Fantabulous Friday.

PS: I'm also on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure today, talking about how ignorance of Greek myths can lead to censorship and arrest. Just click on the link above to see what it's all about.

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